Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A Broad on a Bus

In the last 24 hours I've experienced enchantment on the most pedestrian of public transports: the bus.

The first occured in the late evening after a tango class. Across from the bus stop was a filigreed doors and windows, multi-storied, creamy stucco confection topped by statues that was A SCHOOL. An ordinary public school, though the facade was anything but. Buenos Aires is full of surprises like that.

But the night was not over. My bus pulled up and it was like a scene from a surrealistic film ... the doors opened and I was greeted by heavy metal music in super stereo, blue neon lights, quilted doors and interior, pimped out dashboard, dice and ribbon streamers hanging from the rear-view mirror, and to top it all off, a disco ball hanging from the ceiling. I almost expected mist to come curling out the door. To say it was atmospheric is an understatement.

This bus was the driver's universe and he was making damn well sure it was a good one. He may be stuck driving us peons around but he was THE KING of his domain.

"Nice bus," I commented as I boarded this street fantasy.

"No entendo," he replied.

My next bus happening occured on a rush hour bus--a insane time to have to take public transort. I asked the driver to alert me to my stop after showing him the address, but in the meantime I got pushed back to the middle of the bus by the boarding hoard.

In a bit of a panic, I wondered how I'd ever know when to exit the bus.

Then I heard a relay of Spanish voices, starting from the front of the bus and ending with the woman next to me.

"Your stop is the next one," she said in English.

How cool was that?

I had became a collective bus project ... get the clueless gringa off at her stop. And the relay of info during a rush hour crush was ... genius!

Saturday, March 13, 2010


As my weeks wind down in Buenos Aires I've been evaluating my accomplishments. I can't say I've gotten a handle on the language, but I can see the handle off in the distance. For instance, one day I said to the elderly woman around the corner, "You are a pidgeon?" but I at least realized my mistake (the next day). Progress.

My Minnesota Nice has been chipped away ... a good thing. I now wag my finger at homicidal taxi drivers who have me in their sights and shout "Don't you dare fucking run over me," in English of course, but the message gets across.

Last week an old man in a uniform showed up at my door. Normally, I don't open my door for anyone I don't know ... it's dangerous in this city. But looking through my door's peek hole, I figured I could take him if I had to and my curiosity was piqued.

"Shhhhestashowwwquantashaaa," he greeted me. This is how Castellano sounds to me when I don't understand it.

"No entiendo," I replied.

"Shhheeeeboletoshoshesta," he answered, and thrust two pieces of cardboard towards me.

"No Espanol," I countered.

He started pleading in the Italian tone people use here to wear you down. To get rid of him, I took the cards, said goodbye and shut the door, chucking them in the garbage.

Bzzzzzzz, Bzzzzz. My doorbell.

"Dinero, dinero, viente pesos," he whined.

Now, I understood this. He had given me something that required money in return. I was a little pissed off.

"Un momento," I replied, shutting the door.

Fishing out the two papers amongst coffee grounds, I examined them closer. Ah, two tickets to the policemen's ball. Now, I've got a thing for a man in a uniform and this ball would be many men in POLICIA uniforms (might I be so shameless as to say, "and might be just my ticket"), but I was feeling tricked.

Opening the door I thrust the two pieces of cardboard back into his hands.

"Vamoose, senior, vamoose!" I said in my sternest tone with a cartoonish expression of irritation. Now, I've only heard "vamoose" said in old John Wayne movies and I must admit, it's very satisying to say.

I shut the door in his face. We NEVER do this in Minnesota.

And don't even get me started on the knife sharpener guy.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Best Bean, the Right Bus Stop, the Perfect Cookie

My occasional obsessiveness serves me well in a city that requires pitbull tenacity to get anything accomplished.

For instance, there was the Starbucks Death March. I needed beans ... so at high noon on a hot Buenos Aires day with a vague recollection of where it was, I set off to find it. Unfortunately, I dragged my son's friend along with me. We walked and walked as the day grew hotter, frying the dog piss on the sidewalk.

Matt was too polite to ask if we could call it quits. No, now I was on a mission, and it would not be a mission impossible.

Dear Reader, we did eventually find it and it was well worth it (for me). I compensated poor Matt with a mocha coffee frappe.

Matt and my son, visiting at Christmas, were also subjected to the I'M GOING TO FIND THE TOUR BUS STOP IF IT KILLS ME incident. The tour bus company's brochure gave only vague directions for finding the stop. We asked directions from an English speaking Porteno, walked to the stop, only to see the double decker bus whizz by in another direction. This happened three times. At three different stops.

"Can't we just do the carriage ride in Palermo Park?" whined my son as we walked by the horses. You'd think by know he'd know who he was dealing with.

I stalked that bus like a bird dog. "Run boys!" I yelled as I saw it coming down the avenue in our direction. We arrived breathless and sweating as the bus opened its doors. Victory was mine.

Now I'm into the Tollhouse cookie quest. I'm determined to replicate them here in Argentina even though things keep getting screwed up. Jumbo supermarket was suppose to have chocolate chips according to an alert on the expat's website. I hiked a mile and a half to discover the rumour was wrong. Ah well, a Cadbury dark chocolate bar chopped up would have to do.

At my local market I sought out baking soda, forgetting my translation book at home.

"El horno ... torta," I said, not knowing the word for cookies, and using the word "cake" instead. I pantomined a cake rising in the oven. I was quite proud to use the baking word since I'd just learned it the day before.

There was a hurried consultation among the Chinese clerks. One pulled out nuts. No. Another pulled out coconut. Wrong again. An English speaking gentleman intervened, saying something in Spanish. A package of "polvo para hornear" was produced.

My cookies turned out super puffy and dry as English toast. Clearly something went wrong. I must track the culprit.

Was it the temperature, since my oven is centigrade and I only speak farenheit? My landlord said no.

Did I handle the dough too roughly and upset it? A baker on the Internet said this could happen. Could the baking soda be something else? Ah, yes. Baking powder.

So the quest continues today with baking soda.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Through the Looking Glass Sunday

It was a very interesting Sunday filled with flightless pidgeons, samurai worshipping, a junk parade and galloping horses.

Around the corner from my house is a pidgeon roost where I recycle all my leftover edibles. Pidgeons will eat ANYTHING. As I was scattering unpoped popcorn seeds (don't ever try to use olive oil in a popcorn pot), an older lady exited a ground floor apartment with a pidgeon cupped in her hands. She set it down gently among the other pidgeons where upon it promptly relieved itself. Then she picked it up.

"Vos gusto los palomas?" she asked.

I answered in caveman Spanish, that yes, I did like pidgeons.

"Mi paloma no avion." Then she pointed to her head.

The pidgeon not only did not fly but it wasn't right in the head.


Continuing on my Sunday walk, I arrived at the Japanese Gardens. It was the usual koi, red bridges, pruned trees, etc. punctuated by stone statues. In front of an immense Samurai statue stood an American woman bowing unselfconsciously to the samurai, then raising her hands in that taking-in-energy pose one sees in Unity churches in the States. Perhaps she was told that one of her past lives was that of a samurai? Or did the stone give off a certain aura she hoped to cash in on? I would never know.

Later in the evening as I walked to a dinner party, I encountered a parade of what appeared to be people pushing junk made into mini floats. Ahh, an art parade. I've seen those in Minneapolis. The junk art pushers had blocked off a street and were shouting chants of which I could understand nada.

I arrived at my destination--a vegetarian potluck--held on a rooftop terrace with a wonderful view of the streets below and the full moon above. I uncorked the Champagne I brought and we toasted the moon.

The night air was suddenly punctuated by the sound of galloping hooves on pavement. Looking down, five mounted police raced by, obviously on a call. "Oh, they're going after the cartenero protesters," commented a guest (carteneros are poor people who collect cardboard from the garbage for recycling).

Well, so much for the avant garde art-junk parade theory.

A truly mystifying Sunday.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A Dark and Stormy Notche

My little street turned into a Venetian canal last night, complete with a current in which swirled sampans of plastic trash bags. The bags floated past my door when I opened it to check on the storm which was brief but bountiful.

In the midst of the drama (Would the water come up my last step and into the house? Will it continue to pour?) the electricity went out. I rousted up candles, stuck them in a decorative minora and read a book on my computer. It was really quite cozy.

At intervels I stuck my head out the door to see who would rescue us if necessary. Several fire trucks drove through the flood, one pulling a rubber dinghy. I knew the policia were just dying to get a chance to use them.

Parked cars looked dangerously close to floating away. I worried about the wild cats who lived underneath them --surely they would have the street cat sense to move to higher ground.

People waded around in the sewage, attempting to unclog street drains. Buenos Aire's garbage problem comes back to bite it in the butt after every good downpour.

Candles and flashlights flickered and flashed from every window as people peered out to watch the show. Would the city bus actually attempt to go through the flood? Yes. Would the electric company send a truck? Yes. Would they fix the problem? No.

My neighbor across the street shouted to me, "Like Venice, only cheaper!"

In the morning the streets of my barrio were strewn with every kind of debris imaginable. It stuck to shrubs, it lay awash on door stoops. The good people of Buenos Aires were busy mucking out their flooded homes and businesses with brooms and floor squegees. I joined in and washed the sewage muck off the sidewalk in front of my house.

The electricity came on later in the day and we all waited to see if the same thing will be repeated tonight as the skys cloud up again.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

So I've spent the last 48 hours as an illegal immigrant and I'm sitting in the waiting room of the U.S. Embassy in Ascuncion, Paraguay, watching a Mexican telenovela involving pirates.

I'm the only person paying any attention to the television ... the rest of the waiters are South American and chat among themselves.

"Wow," I thought, as I watched a hunky pirate on the screen make love to a woman in petticoats on a Mexican beach, "This kind of show could be wildly popular in the states ... I can't even understand what they're saying and I'm hooked."

I'm waiting to find out my fate since I inadvertantly entered Paraguay without a visa (and we're not talking Visa CARD). I've spent 48 hours as an "illegal" ... me, "Miz Goes-By-the-Rules".

All those "Locked Abroad" shows I used to watch? Not going to happen to me. I've carried in no drugs, no briefcase of cash or gold strapped to my body ... plus there's a U.S. Marine right outside the door. I'm on U.S. soil (I think).

After a half hour of watching pirates I'm told by an official, "We can't help you here." I'm to report to Paraguayan Immigration tomorrow.

In the morning I bring my Paraguayan friend, Marlene, her auntie, and her auntie's grandchild. Marlene is to translate for me. I warn her, "You may see a side of me you've never seen before."

We're shuffled from office to office, official to official. My final meeting is with a woman who tells me I must re-enter Argentina, go to the nearest Paraguayan Embassy, get my tourist visa, and then re-enter Paraguay. We're talking days. We talking incredible amounts of hoop jumping for a gringa whose Spanish is limited to saying "hello" and "It's very hot today."

I turn to my friend, Marlene, and say quietly, "I'm sorry ... you're going to see a side of my you've never seen or will ever seen again." It was time to play the pissed off American card, so politically incorrecto. So necessary right now.

Pulling myself up to my full five foot three, I assert that, "No, If you do not do help me I am going to walk out of here and hire a Paraguayian lawyer to help me. Also, I intend to complain to the U.S. Embassy."

Marlene translates.

I continue on in the same vein, trying to work the words, "U.S. Embassy" in at every opportunity. Marlene's tag-along-aunt get her two cents in as well, though I don't know what she says.

The head bureaucrat excuses herself to go consult with someone in another office. Did I push it too far.? Will they arrest me for being an illegal and throw me in a cell, thus making me eligible to appear on "Locked Up Abroad"?

She returns to usher me into another office. She produces a stamp. She can, indeed, stamp my passport. All for $40. No crossing borders and bribing border guards and riding buses into the pampas.

I am legal.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

An Argentine Man's Corazon

So today my elderly pharmacist gave me a kiss smack on the lips. A beso on the boca. I wasn't expecting it, just the usually kiss on one cheek. Dirty old pharmacist! After I bought my face cream he said he and his heart would be waiting for my next visit. I bet I could work that man for every good drug in his pharmacy, if I was that kind of girl.

Why couldn't it have been Dr. Handsome, my dentist?

These Argentine men and their "corazons." I have a nuevo tango CD where a man continually bleats about his "corazon" over the music. Bleats pathetically.

The men here are suppose to be very romantic, but every man who ever sweet talked me spoke not a word of English. I got the gist, however, and I don't buy a word (even though I didn't understand a word).

An expat last night told me this: Here's what to expect on a date with an Argentine. The first time he will buy your drink, and try for hours to talk you into bed. If he doesn't succeed, you will never see him again. If he succeeds, you won't hear from him for weeks, he'll show up, go to bed with you, and you get to pay for your own drink.

He said an Argentine man will borrow money from one woman and use it to take out another woman.

Married men chase as much as the single men. There are little "love hotels" all over the city where you can rent rooms by the hour for trysting.

Frankly, I don't know where they find the time. Between working, siestas, going to the gym, going out to dinner at 11 with the wife and kids (plus all the extended family get togethers) they must take their romance breaks during the day.

For me, I intend to keep this mystery, well, a mystery.